| Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid, along with the rest of the team, travel in the steam locomotive-pulled Gandhi Memorial Train in Pietermaritzburg. (Reuters)
Pietermaritzburg, Feb. 21: It was an emotional moment for Ila Gandhi and other descendants of the Mahatma. For captain Sourav Ganguly, it was special. And, for dozens of awe-struck fans of Indian origin, it was a moment to cherish... To rub shoulders with the Rahul Dravids and Yuvraj Singhs this afternoon.
Clearly, 2.05 pm (local time) has now become part of this premier Natal city’s history.
That, after all, is when the Indian cricket team stepped off a special six-coach train at the Pietermaritzburg Station, marking the end of a 12-minute (steam engine-powered) ride from Pentrich.
Then, after a sentimental speech from mayor Hloni Zondi, India’s consul-general in Durban, Ajit Kumar, unveiled a granite plaque to mark the spot — actually, its vicinity — where the Mahatma was thrown off a Pretoria-bound train (despite a valid first class ticket) for refusing to vacate a Whites-only compartment.
That eviction 110 years ago encouraged the Mahatma to move towards launching India’s freedom struggle. Besides, he proved an inspiration for South Africa’s own struggle. This City of Choice had left the Mahatma with no choice but to tackle the oppressors in his unique manner.
The plaque (made from South African and Indian granite) mirrors that neatly: “In the vicinity of this place, M.K. Gandhi was evicted from a first class compartment on the night of 7 June, 1893. This incident changed the course of his life. He took up the fight against racial oppression. His active non-violence started from that day.”
The initiative for the cricketers’ journey, in a train similar (wooden coaches and all) to the one used by the Mahatma, was taken by the Gandhi Memorial Committee and, because of the Souravs and Dravids, the unveiling became a huge media event. The coaches, incidentally, are part of the railway museum and are put to service on select occasions.
A prominent absentee was Sachin Tendulkar. The maestro had a recurrence of a bruise-triggered pain in his left hand and the specialist, consulted at short notice, wanted him at his clinic “between 2.00 and 3.00 pm”. According to the team management, Sachin is “fine” and will attend tomorrow’s nets ahead of the World Cup match versus Namibia.
To return to the unveiling (and the train ride), Sourav had this to say: “Recreating the journey has been special... The unveiling too... As a child, I’d read about the Mahatma’s eviction. Today, I’m on the same platform... Yes, it’s been special and emotional.”
Though a New Zealander, coach John Wright also found the ride “quite special”. He told The Telegraph: “Obviously, the Mahatma didn’t just have a huge influence on India... As it turns out, I’ve got a book of his quotations and recall having watched that very successful movie (Gandhi).”
The Indians were also slated to visit the Mahatma’s statue in the Church Street Mall, but with the train journey and the unveiling falling behind schedule, that had to be scrapped. It left quite a few fans of Indian origin disappointed: They had parked themselves near the statue, hoping for a closer look at the many modern-day icons.